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by Virginia Woolf

Orlando Chapter 1 Summary

  • The story begins with a young boy – definitely a boy, the narrator assures us – using the decapitated head of a Moorish soldier for target practice. The head is attached to the attic ceiling, which is an interesting decorative choice.
  • We’re treated to a description of Orlando’s family tree. It boils down to, his father beheaded a lot of foreigners, as did his father before that, and his father before that, and onwards. Several of them also liked to bring the victims' heads back and hang them from the ceiling.
  • Next we’re treated to some lovely descriptions of Orlando. He has excellent legs and good teeth, among other physical attributes. The biographer rejoices that Orlando is destined for great deeds, and notes that a scribe could produce a great story just by following Orlando around and writing down everything he does.
  • The biographer notes that various sights unleash a complex torrent of emotions in Orlando, but these are quickly glossed over and the narrative returns to Orlando’s movements and actions.
  • Orlando goes into a room and begins to write. It’s clear that he does this every day.
  • He easily writes ten pages of high-strung, pretentious poetry. Considering he’s sixteen, that’s quite impressive.
  • When he tries to write about nature, he glances out the window and actually looks at nature, eventually concluding that it’s far too complex to capture adequately in poetry.
  • He leaves the house, tripping over himself as he does so, because he’s a bit of a klutz.
  • He avoids everyone as he walks out to the park.
  • The biographer notes that Orlando’s klutziness is paired with a love of solitude.
  • Finally, he comes to an oak tree and is blissfully alone. The oak tree is at the top of a hill, where on a clear day, he can see many English counties and the English Channel.
  • His family owns most of what he can see from the oak tree. Did we mention Orlando’s family is very rich?
  • Orlando falls onto the ground because he likes feeling the hard root of the oak tree beneath him.
  • Lying on the root like this, Orlando can imagine riding a horse or standing on the deck of a ship, etc. We learn that “he felt the need of something which he could attach his floating heart to; the heart that tugged at his side; the heart that seemed filled with spiced and amorous gales every evening about this time when he walked out.”
  • The oak tree is the lucky recipient of Orlando’s heart.
  • After an hour, a trumpet sounds and Orlando jumps up and runs back to his house. Queen Elizabeth has arrived.
  • Even though Orlando dresses quickly, he is late to meet the Queen.
  • As he hurries to greet Her Majesty, he stops to look at a shabby man who has the distinction of being a poet. He wants to stop and chat, but the man doesn’t even glance at Orlando, and the Queen of England is waiting!
  • So Orlando runs down to the banqueting-hall and offers the Queen a bowl of rose water. He’s too shy to even look at her, but he does see her hands. Despite being attached to an old body that reminds Orlando of furs in a closet, the Queen’s hands are rather powerful.
  • The Queen is only able to see Orlando’s head, but she really, really likes what she sees.
  • Being old and being a queen who has to deal with threats on her life and various wars, she desires innocence and simplicity.
  • Orlando gives her that, and she in turn throws lots of money and titles at him.
  • After two years, Orlando is invited to go hang out with the Queen at Whitehall.
  • The Queen is happy to see him when she arrives
  • She looks him up and down, and then throws more money and more titles at him. At the end of all the throwing, Orlando is a Treasurer, Steward, and part of the Order of the Garter.
  • Giggle.
  • She protects him from fighting in foreign wars and enjoys his company.
  • She may even sleep with Orlando, but the text isn't really clear. You’re going to have to read that passage and get back to us.
  • What we know for sure is that the Queen loves him. She promises him the world. Considering she’s the Queen of England, it’s entirely possible she can deliver it, too.
  • Then winter hits with its snow and frost and general unpleasantness.
  • The Queen passes by a mirror and sees Orlando snogging some other girl. Flaming mad, she takes a sword (gold-hilted, we might add) and strikes the mirror. She then skulks off to do some royal moping.
  • The biographer asks if we can really blame Orlando. As a young man of the Elizabethan era, he is expected to "pluck" as many young girls as possible.
  • We don’t know the name of the girl he's been making out with – the biographer tells us she could be practically anyone, since Orlando doesn’t discriminate when it comes to adventures in love.
  • The biographer seizes upon this fact to tell us that Orlando has a strange affinity for common people, which can likely be traced back to a certain grandmother who enjoyed milking cows.
  • In keeping with his liking for commoners, Orlando sneaks off to hang out with sailors and innkeepers and other non-nobles.
  • Eventually, Orlando gets bored with this way of life and wants to get back to the arts and sciences.
  • He shows up back at the royal court, only now it’s being presided over King James. Orlando is eagerly welcomed.
  • All the ladies swoon over him, and he almost marries three different ones named Clorinda, Favilla, and Euphrosyne.
  • Bachelorette #1 turns out to be entirely too sweet, fainting at the sight of blood and trying to prevent Orlando from sinning.
  • As for Bachelorette #2, her family is poor but she’s gorgeous, which is more than enough to land her a place at the court. After Orlando sees her order a spaniel to be whipped, he breaks up her.
  • Bachelorette #3 seems just right. She comes from an old Irish family and is sweet natured with a fondness for animals. Lawyers on both sides of the proposed marriage get busy drawing up all sorts of contracts when the Great Frost begins.
  • Imagine the coldest winter possible, then remember that this isn’t a true story and multiply your thought by ten and you’ll have some idea of what the Great Frost was like.
  • While the country people are all freezing to death, the English Court declares a holiday. The King has the river turned into carnival ground. He then reserves a choice spot of the river to erect a Royal Pagoda for his court.
  • Everyone has loads of fun. The rich nobility especially like going to see a ship stuck in the river that was carrying a load of apples. Right beside the ship is an old woman ready to serve some apples to her customers, only she always looks like that because she’s frozen. Gruesome, yes, but the English Court thinks it's fabulous.
  • The frost continues and everyone makes merry.
  • Orlando is a bit out of place, seeing as he likes plain and simple pleasures.
  • On January 7, he sees an androgynous figure emerge from the Muscovite Embassy and skate over. It’s lust at first sight, even though he can’t tell if the person is a boy or a girl. At first he thinks that no girl is capable of skating so well, but then he realizes no boy is capable of being quite that…hot.
  • In his mind, he calls her "a melon, a pineapple, an olive tree, an emerald, and a fox in the snow," which is all stuff that he liked as a boy.
  • As Orlando stares at the hot ice skater, his fiancé hangs on his arm.
  • The ice skater's name is the Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch. She’s Russian.
  • Orlando and the Russian Princess meet formally at dinner when the princess is seated in between two young English lords who don’t speak a word of French. (She speaks French and Russian, but not English.)
  • She makes fun of them in French, and Orlando falls in love with her some more.
  • She asks him to pass the salt, and he replies in perfect French.
  • They chat together and the rest, as they say, is history.
  • Orlando and Sasha, which is what he calls the Princess, spend every waking hour together and Orlando is transformed from an awkward kid into a total lady-killer.
  • He’s incredibly attentive to Sasha, and ignores his actual fiancé. It takes the Lady Euphrosyne (his fiancé) some time to catch on to what Orlando is up to.
  • The Russian princess hates the English court and demands that Orlando take her out among the common folk. They carouse around town and have loads of fun.
  • We’re pretty sure they sleep together, although again, we can’t be positive. What we do know is that Orlando is head over heels in love. He tells Sasha that he had never known love until he met her.
  • Then Orlando mopes about death.
  • Sasha distracts him with her charming ways.
  • After Sasha answers Orlando’s questions about her family and where she lives and what Russia is like, she falls awkwardly silent.
  • Orlando starts getting confused and angry about what Sasha could possibly be hiding from him.
  • The two skate down the river to where anchored ships had frozen. One of the ships belongs to the Muscovite Embassy. Since Sasha left some of her clothing onboard, the couple climb onto the ship.
  • A young man pops up out of nowhere and speaks to Sasha Russian. Apparently he’s a member of the crew and wants to help her find what she needs.
  • The two disappear into the ship.
  • Orlando dreams about life and his plans for marrying Sasha. She wants to live in Russia, and although Orlando would obviously prefer to stay in England, he’s in love.
  • Finally, he realizes that Sasha’s been gone for quite a while. He heads into the ship.
  • What happens next is unclear. He "has a vision" of Sasha canoodling with the sailor before he’s seized with a jealous rage. With her charming ways, Sasha convinces Orlando that it wasn’t what it looked like.
  • Finally, Sasha assures him that it was nothing by being all, "Me? With him? Please." Orlando looks at the "brute" of a seaman and is convinced.
  • Yet as they leave, Sasha speaks to the man in Russian. The tone of her voice reminds of the night he found her gnawing a candle. He realizes that there is something not quite right about her; he envisions her as an overweight forty-years-old.
  • As they skate back to London though, all is forgiven.
  • The night is incredibly beautiful. Sasha is particularly nice to Orlando. Orlando is nice back. The two of them trade absurd compliments as they head to the Royal enclosure.
  • They don’t want to go inside because they’ve become the scandal of the court. They prefer to stay outside with all the commoners.
  • They watch a puppet show where a Moor suffocates a woman, and Orlando imagines himself as the Moor and Sasha as the woman.
  • The play ends and Orlando cries, convinced that death triumphs over everything.
  • The night is pitch dark and Orlando realizes that this is the perfect night for the two of them to execute their plan of running away together and living happily ever after.
  • He whispers to Sasha "Jour de ma vie!" which is their prearranged signal.
  • Orlando waits for her at an agreed-upon inn. And waits. And waits.
  • Suddenly Orlando is hit in the face. Repeatedly.
  • Orlando is getting beat up by rain drops. The skies open up and the Great Frost is over.
  • The first note of midnight sounds from St. Paul’s Cathedral and Orlando convinces himself that Sasha will show up by the time the sixth note hits.
  • No such luck. Orlando finally accepts that Sasha has stood him up.
  • He’s completely overcome for the next two hours. At two in the morning, he jumps on his horse and gallops off.
  • He goes to the river where the carnival had been set up. Dawn breaks just in time for Orlando to see the solid ice of the river melt before his eyes. Destruction ensues. For months everyone had been living on the river. Orlando watches the water carry people and possessions away.
  • Then he turns his horse to the sea. He sees the Russian ship sailing away.
  • Orlando stands in the river and curses Sasha.

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